Muslim sense of prayer and spirituality touched me
Christian W Troll SJ
Muslim sense of prayer and spirituality touched me more profoundly in South Asia, Christian W Troll SJ tells Francesco Pistocchini. An Italian traslation of this interview appeared in the POPOLI. Thanks to Pistocchini for providing us with the English text and also the premission to publish it in Salaam.
Pistocchini: At the beginning, could you briefly summarize the history of Jesuit involvement in Islam studies and in the dialogue with Muslim people?
Troll: Ignatius and his first companions understood the importance of reaching out to people on the frontiers and at the centre of society, of reconciling those who were estranged in any way. From the centre in Rome, Ignatius sent Jesuits to the frontiers, to the new world, to announce the Lord to peoples and cultures that did not know him as yet. The tradition of the Society included right from the beginning the concern to go among Muslims. However at the time the political realities made the work of missionary propagation in Muslim lands near impossible. An exception are the Jesuits missions to the court of the Mughal Emperor Akbar of India and his immediate successors (late 16th and beginning 17th century). However, these missions to the Mughal Court did not lead then in the Society of Jesus to a lasting preoccupation with Muslims and Islam as such. This changed only much later, with the foundation of the Near East province and the University of Saint Joseph in Beirut (1881). Here was undertaken systematically, the study of Arabic language and literature and of Muslim faith and practice in past and present, as part of the overall objective to help the Christians of the Arab world in witnessing to Christ within the predominantly Muslim Arab societies of their countries.
Pistocchini: Is there any network of Jesuits among Muslims? If yes, how does it work?
Troll: In the wake of the Second Vatican Council several General Congregations of the Order dealt in a special way with Jesuit involvement in intercultural and interreligious Dialogue. The then General Superior of the Society of Jesus, Fr. Pedro Arrupe (Superior General from 1965-83), nominated a member of the order in Rome, knowledgeable and experienced in the field, to counsel him on questions relating to the apostolate of Jesuits among Muslims. In 1995 the 34. General Congregation of the Order asked the General Superior (a t the time: Fr. Peter-Hans Kolvenbach) to establish at the Jesuit Curia in Rome a Secretariat for Interreligious Dialogue in order to further the initiatives and coordinate Jesuit activities in the field of interreligious dialogue as well as to organize formation programs in interreligious dialogue for Jesuits world-wide. The Secretary also published a Bulletin to serve the exchange of experience and theological reflection in the area of dialogue. As far as Jesuit-Muslim relations are concerned, over the years there have taken place different places meetings of the loose group or network ‘Jesuits among Muslims’ (JAM). In 2009, Fr. Adolfo Nicolás, who had succeeded Fr. Kolvenbach as General Superior in 2008, modified this structure. The Secretariat was discontinued and instead advisors of interreligious dialogue were appointed who from their own involvement and study in the field would inform Fr. General about their respective area of dialogue. Once a year all the advisors come to together for a meeting with Fr. General to share with each other perspectives on dialogue on their different fields.
Having been appointed advisor on matters concerning Christian-Muslim Relations, in 2010 I convened a JAM meeting, in order to renew the network after a break of several years. The man objective was to promote the exchange of information and to further shared reflection. Members of this network would be Jesuits who have given regularly a considerable amount of their time to this specific apostolate in its most varied forms: Spiritual/contemplative contact and study, research in the field of Islamic studies, teaching, formation, education, Christian-Muslim collaboration in social and related fields, in other words, Jesuits who have had the opportunity to study and reflect upon Muslim societies and Islam in a sustained manner, in the spirit of dialogue and collaboration as defined by the relevant Church documents since Vatican II. Younger Jesuits, preparing for this apostolate via studies and in other ways, were especially invited. Thus a meeting of 37 Jesuits took place at the Gregorian University in Rome from Sept 16-19, 2011. The overall theme was ‘Approaching Islam in the Light of the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises’. The special objective of the meeting was to reflect upon the motives and the that would mark Jesuit engagement in dialogue with Muslims.
Pistocchini: Is there a specific Jesuit perspective in this field?
Troll: The Jesuits were founded as an apostolic group called to go where the needs were more universal and more urgent, and into frontier situations. We are supported in this apostolic drive by the Spiritual Exercises. The spirituality is marked by openness to the working of the Holy Spirit in and around us, not least in groups and religions outside the visible confines of the Church including the world(s) outside the visible Church. The approach will be marked by the ‘discernment of spirits’ which, when applied to interreligious realities, includes intimate familiarity with the world of faith, practice and religious thought of, in this case, Muslims in their great cultural and religious variety. It will also be marked by the effort ever anew to contextualize the Christian message and life in the various social and cultural settings that condition our world-wide apostolate. We should also mention here the particular call which has been addressed to us Jesuits by recent Popes, especially Pope Paul VI, John Paul II and Benedict XVI., to reach out in our day to people on the frontiers, where cultures and religions meet in a climate of tension and questioning.
Pistocchini: You have been scholar in different parts of the world. Where did you more deeply develop your knowledge of Islam?
Troll: I have had the privilege to meet Muslims from the late 1950’s onwards as co-students, as colleagues, as regular interlocutors in dialogue in the various parts of the Christian-Muslim world, wherever my extended years of study and then my teaching activities lead me. However, nowhere has the depth of Muslim sense of prayer and spirituality touched me more profoundly than in South Asia, where I was privileged to spent 12 active years, after preparing for this in and from London University, where I studied under and with Muslims Urdu language and literature and Islamic history.
Pistocchini: “Muslim ask, Christian answer”: could you explain what is it? What are its origin and goals?
This is the title of a relatively little book that now exists in seven languages. It also forms the basis of an interactive website answering questions by Muslims about Christian faith and practice (see: www.answers-to-muslims.com; www.risposteaimusulmani.com). This grew from my experience in Ankara/Turkey, where I taught in the Faculty of Muslim Theology as guest professor on Christianity, and where I saw that younger Muslims do have many questions about Christianity. It is their right to receive answers to these by us Christian believers. Furthermore, without sound mutual information, it would seem to me, no true Christian-Muslim dialogue on that level makes sense.
Pistocchini: What are the main questions? What are the most challenging theological and cultural arguments?
Troll: Besides the classical questions (incarnation, trinity; sin, salvation and redemption through the Cross of Christ) many questions concern issues of social ethics and bioethics, the structures of the Church, including papacy and the papal teaching office (magisterium), pluralism and truth claims in the context of contemporary democratic societies, family and celibacy.
Catholic Christians are, on the whole, little aware of the extraordinary gift God has bestowed upon them. They must be made aware of the moral duty to share, or at least to desire to share, it in dialogical ways with persons belonging to another faith tradition such as Islam. Christians are called in the spirit of friendship to invite to fellowship with Christ.
Pistocchini: You have a central role in the Catholic-Muslim Forum. Could you take stock of the initiative?
Troll: The Church has regular meetings with various groups of Muslim representatives. Thus, the Pontifical Council of Interreligious Dialogue (PCID) over the past decades has established regular contacts with a number of important Muslim institutions world-wide: The Al-Azhar University in Cairo; the Muslim Call Society of Libya, Shiite clerical bodies in Tehran… More recently the PCID has formalized contacts with the group of Muslim leaders and thinkers who formulated and/or signed the famous ‘Common Word’ document of 2007 which set out and declared that the dual love commandment is as central and binding on Muslims and their tradition as it is to the Jewish and Christian religion. The main figures behind the ‘Common Word’ initiative were Prince Ghazi of the Royal House of Jordan, Prof. Timothy Winter alias Abdul-Hakim Murad of Cambridge, UK, and Dr. Aref Nayyed of Libya.
After the first seminar of the Forum in Rome in 2008 the impression was that with the Common Word group of Muslims there had opened the possibility of entering more deeply and frankly into essential themes and of successfully expressing, with greater clarity and fidelity, that which unites and differentiates Christians and Muslims. The final joint declaration of the 2008 seminar contained important statements about respect for persons and their choices in matters of conscience and religion [and] on the equal dignity of men and women. In his speech to the delegates at the end of the first Seminar in November 2008 Benedict XVI invited the two sides to unite their efforts, with the goal of overcoming incomprehension, overcoming prejudices and correcting the distorted image of the other. He stated that the often bloody conflicts between Christians and Muslims in various parts of the world had made the dialogue complex and difficult, but that they must not hamper or stop it. Comparing the text of the final declaration of the first seminar in Rome in Nov. 2008 with the final declaration of the Second Seminar of November 2011, organized by Prince Ghazi in Jordan, at the Baptism site, clearly shows that certainly one is able to talk about the Christian and Muslims understandings of basic points of the teaching on matters as basic, broad and removed from everyday reality as ‘Reason, Faith and the Human Person’, but that, on the other hand, one is not able to frankly discuss and even less to agree upon any concrete measures that would seem to follow from the double command of love of God and love of neighbor, such as for instance the respect of individual religious freedoms and equal citizens rights. However, the Vatican will continue fostering colloquia on the international level, since they provide many opportunities for unique, informal exchanges. Such do constitute opportunities for mutual learning through conversation in small groups and under four eyes. There is no alternative to dialogue on that large international as well as on other levels, independent of how much or little palpable results they generate at the moment.
Pistocchini: Islam is taking a new role in the political turmoil of these months? How do you evaluate this role and the possible developments, especially in Arab countries?
Troll: Instead of saying ‘Islam is taking a new role’ I should formulate: Muslim individuals and Muslim groups and parties -- in the name of their understanding of what Islam means and demands in the given concrete situations -- have played and continue to play a significant role in giving shape to the developments in the Arab world that have been termed ‘Arab Spring’, ‘Arab revolution’ and the like. The overall situation is very complex and the constellations in different Arab countries vary considerably. Knowledgeable and experienced Christian partners in Muslim-Christian relations are challenged to discern on the basis of precise and comprehensive information the various trends and the programs that are being worked out by various religious-political parties. It is not easy to assess the respective weight of certain movements at the moment, and any predictions concerning the future would seem to be hazardous. The key question, however, remains wider open: will Muslim majorities emerge that seriously question and even effectively oppose the traditional pattern of political-religious Islamic synthesis; will a majority of Muslims develop a consciousness that accepts the basic Human Rights as spelled out in the Un Declaration of 1948. Will political parties win majorities who stand for granting to all inhabitants of Muslim-majority Arab countries equal rights to all its citizens, irrespective of ethnical and religious allegiance. In my opinion we are still far removed from the realization of these demands or even only the trend towards this. This fact has to be taken into account realistically.